Mapo tofu, more romantically if less glamorously known as “pockmarked old lady tofu,” is the beancurd equivalent of bacon—the surefire way to convert tofu skeptics to its quiet pleasures. A specialty of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, it brims with what Fuchsia Dunlop describes as the “spicy bounty” of the region’s cuisine, being spicy, salty, and oh-so-appetizing.
The story goes that the dish is named after the smallpox-ravaged elderly mother Chen who cooked a firestorm near the city’s Ten Thousand Blessings Bridge at the time of the Tongzhi Emperor of the Qing dynasty (1856- 1875). More than a century later, his creation is on menus from Tokyo to Tulsa, known and loved for its aromatic warmth and intensely savory flavors, perfectly balanced by the creamy smoothness of beancurd. Trust me: even if you can’t stand tofu, you’ll love this.
There is surprisingly little agreement on the main component of the dish. J Kenji López-Alt, whose recipe is based on the one served by chef Zhang Wenxue at Boston’s Fuloon restaurant, calls specifically for “medium to firm” silken tofu, the undrained and unpressed kind. But the “self-taught Northwest China cook” behind the Red House Spice blog, Wei, recommends against using it: She prefers “medium-hard” pressed tofu. The Sichuan Gourmet Association uses soft pressed beancurd, as does Tony Tan in his book Hong Kong Food City, while Fuchsia Dunlop simply mentions plain white beancurd.
The difference, as these names suggest, is primarily one of texture; the more liquid that has been squeezed out of the beancurd, the firmer it will be and therefore easier to fry. Taylor Holliday, who, with his Chinese daughter, runs a business importing ingredients from Sichuan to the US, sums up my feelings on this: “Although most people use firm tofu, I prefer the soft kind. I love the fresh soy flavor and cloudy texture, and I don’t mind if it breaks up a bit when it cooks.” The role of the tofu here, at least in my opinion, is to provide a smooth, creamy foil for the strong flavors of the other ingredients, so the smoother and creamier you make it, the better. I like it soft, but medium is the firmest thing I would do here.
You can firm up the outside a bit by parboiling the tofu before you stir-fry it; this has the added benefit of heating it up, thus reducing the amount of time you have to spend stirring it in the wok. However, if you don’t mind it being more of a scrambled tofu, you can skip this step; Jennifer Joyce just pats it dry in her book My Asian Kitchen.
A supporting actor; there’s a reason mapo tofu can be so successfully adapted to a vegan diet (may I point you to Meera Sodha’s mushroom version?), because all you really need is something flavorful and more solid than beancurd. That said, meat brings deliciously flavorful fat to the feast, so it’s worth using if you eat it. Given the small amount used, this dish is useful for anyone looking to cut down on their consumption this year. (Joyce is the only one who calls for more meat than tofu, which makes her recipe very intense, confirming my suspicions about the calming role of tofu in this dish.)
Although beef is the traditional choice, as Dunlop points out in his recently reissued The Food of Sichuan, these days “many restaurants, even in Chengdu, use pork instead.” This is attributed to the fact that pork is apparently the cheapest meat, although both seem to be highly priced here, making what you choose largely a matter of taste. As much as I love minced pork, I marginally prefer the earthier richness of the beef fat when melted into the sauce here, but even Quorn would work, albeit with less flavor.
So marinate your minced meat in light soy sauce, Shaoxing rice wine, salt and sugar, but the dish as a whole is so salty that I don’t think it’s necessary; Like tofu, meat should provide a welcome contrast, rather than more of the same.
The sauce is the most important element of mapo tofu, the essential elements of which Wei describes in five Chinese characters:
– numbing (from the lip-tingling Sichuan peppercorns)
– spicy (from chilies, both dried and in the fermented chili bean paste, which is an essential ingredient of this dish)
– aromatic (in the form of fermented black beans)
– physically hot (this is a dish that is served immediately) and
– tender (that lovely soft tofu).
I would also add “intensely salty” to the list, because this is the main characteristic of the fermented broad bean paste, the salty black beans and the little meat there is.
Due to this last point, I don’t think there is a need to add extra salt in the form of soy sauce, although it is popular in recipes, or even Shaoxing wine. Instead, focus on the spicy bean paste, the best of which Tan and Dunlop say comes from Pixian, though you’ll probably have to squint to identify it. the milder version made in Hong Kong. The other essential item (at least in theory, though both López-Alt and Joyce leave them out) are the fermented black soybeans, or “umami bombs” as Holliday describes them, which give the dish a modern twist that I like. It reminds, strangely, of Roquefort. Rinse and slice them, as the Sichuan Gourmet Association suggests, to distribute the flavor more evenly.
The numbing, utterly addictive citrusy spiciness of Sichuan pepper really enhances this dish. Be sure to toast it to bring out its flavor before adding it to taste: Dunlop notes that “Sichuanans can take around four times as much pepper as outsiders, in my experience.” Dunlop and the Sichuan Gourmet Association also use ground or flaked Sichuan chili; if you can’t find this, use the more widely available oil-roasted chili flakes, as suggested by Tan, Lopez-Alt, and Joyce. Holliday explains that one of the characteristics of this dish is “a dark red oil smear on top… that’s the way it is and always has been in Sichuan. And the way it tastes best.” So a little more certainly won’t hurt.
With that being the case, don’t skimp on the cooking oil, or if you do, keep in mind that you’re cheating on the plate, just as you would when cutting the fat off of bacon before adding it to a sandwich. Joyce uses sesame oil, but that feels like a waste, you certainly can’t taste it under all those seasonings. A neutral oil of some kind is a better bet, and I love Lopez-Alt’s trick of flavoring it with Sichuan pepper.
Garlic and ginger are popular bases, again, like Sichuan pepper, giving the dish a fuller, more complex flavor than just salty spiciness. Tan also puts in Sichuan pickled greens, which provide an interesting texture, but are preserved in salt, so they make things a bit overwhelming, even after a thorough rinse as directed. It’s best to stick with chives, although you can use young leeks if you prefer; both are good substitutes for Chinese green garlic, which Dunlop explains is rarely seen around here.
The sauce should cling to the tofu cubes, so you get a good helping of both with each bite, which means thickening it with cornmeal or potato starch, whichever you prefer; They are a lot of a lot, to be honest. As soon as the sauce is slimy enough, pour it onto a serving plate and serve painfully hot with steamed rice and maybe some green vegetables, to help soak up all that delicious brick-red oil.
perfect mapo tofu
preparation 10 minutes
cook 7 minutes
250g soft or medium tofucut into pieces of approximately 2.5 cm
1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns
2 tablespoons of neutral oil
40 g minced beef or pork
2 garlic clovespeeled and finely chopped
1 tablespoon grated ginger
4 spring onionslight and green separated, both sliced diagonally into lengths of about 2 cm
1 heaping tablespoon Sichuan hot bean paste (also called doubanjiang or toban djan)
½ tablespoon fermented black beansdrained
1 teaspoon chili flakesdrained if in oil (you can use this on top)
85 ml of water
2 teaspoons of cornmealmixed to a paste with 1 tablespoon cold water
Before you start cooking, make sure you have all the ingredients laid out next to the pot.
Blanch the cubed tofu in boiling salted water and set aside; and grind half of the Sichuan peppercorns.
Bring a large saucepan of lightly salted water to a boil and gently slide in the tofu. Simmer for one minute, then turn off the heat. Meanwhile, toast half of the peppercorns in a dry skillet until aromatic, then crush into a powder.
As with all stir-fries, have everything prepped and ready before you even think about cooking.
Place a wok over medium-high heat, add the oil and, when it starts to smoke, the remaining whole peppercorns. Fry until aromatic, then remove and discard.
Fry remaining peppercorns until fragrant, then discard. Brown the meat in the same oil and reserve.
Add meat and fry until golden brown and crisp, then scoop out with a slotted spoon and reserve on a paper towel lined plate. Lower the heat slightly, then fry the garlic, ginger and spring onion whites for a minute or so, being careful not to burn them.
Add the bean paste, fermented black beans and chili, fry for 20 seconds, then pour in 85ml of cold water. Bring to a simmer, then carefully drain the tofu and add it to the wok with the meat. Pour sauce over tofu and meat, stirring as little as possible.
Sauté the scallions, garlic and ginger, then add the bean paste, fermented black beans and cool, before returning the meat to the wok and adding the tofu.
Add the cornmeal mixture, cook until the sauce thickens, then gently pour into a serving bowl. Sprinkle with the ground pepper and scallion leaves, and serve with plain rice and maybe some vegetables.
Add the cornmeal paste to thicken the sauce, then pour into a bowl and top with the scallion leaves and ground pepper.
Is mapo tofu the dish that turned you on to tofu, and if not, what’s your secret weapon for converting skeptics? And if you prefer yours without meat, what do you use instead?